London’s Transport Chief Can’t Do Early Meetings As She Uses Southern Rail

London’s Deputy Mayor for Transport avoids early morning meetings because she relies on Southern Rail to get into the office.

Val Shawcross’ office was trying to set up a meeting and in an email wrote: “Val actually is a morning person but has to use Southern trains to get in to the office so we try not to have too many early starts.”

The First Time I Met Americans

HANOI, Vietnam — I first visited the United States in the summer of 1998, when I was invited to attend a literary conference in Montana with four other Vietnamese writers. We flew from Hanoi to Taiwan to Los Angeles. As we crossed the Pacific Ocean, passing through many time zones, I buried myself in sleep and woke up only when the plane hit the tarmac. At passport control, we found ourselves in a huge hall, and I was abruptly taken aback: There were Americans all around us, lots of them! I will never forget that strange feeling. It was bizarre, unbelievable, surreal, that I, a veteran of the Vietnamese People’s Army, was in the United States, surrounded by Americans.

The first time I ever saw Americans was when I was 12 years old. It wasn’t actually blond-haired, blue-eyed Americans that I was seeing up close. The Americans I saw that day were F-4 Phantom bombers, brutally attacking small towns on the shore of Ha Long Bay. It was Aug. 5, 1964, and I was at the beach on a school trip, swimming with my classmates. That was right after the Tonkin Gulf incident, the day President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his decision to expand the war throughout Vietnam…

Welcome To Nauru, The Most Corrupt Country You’ve Never Heard Of

Nestled in a cluster of islands in the central Pacific Ocean is Nauru, a small country with a totally insane story.

Nauru

In 1980, the island nation was considered the wealthiest nation on the planet; in 2017, BusinessTech listed it as one of the five poorest countries in the world.

This is a story of a country that journeyed from rags to riches and back to rags. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when a nation exploits its natural resources at the expense of people’s lives…

Tory Momentum clone Activate at war as ‘hackers’ back Jacob Rees-Mogg for PM | Politics | The Guardian

It’s the grassroots political movement whose launch nobody could envy. Now, social media channels for Activate, the centre-right attempt to emulate Momentum’s youth appeal, appear to be at war with each other over backing for Jacob Rees-Mogg to be Britain’s next prime minister.

On Twitter, the @ActivateBritain account has tweeted a string of anti-Theresa May images and issued an “official statement” endorsing the MP for North East Somerset as the next Conservative leader…

The Man Who Knew Too Much

His nuclear research helped a judge determine that former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko had been assassinated – likely on Putin’s orders. Just months after the verdict, the scientist himself was found stabbed to death with two knives. Police deemed it a suicide, but US intelligence officials suspect it was murder…

Theresa May to launch wide-ranging internet regulation and security changes despite not winning majority

Theresa May looks set to launch wide-ranging internet regulation and plans to fundamentally change how technology works despite not having won a majority.

In the speech in which she committed to keep governing despite calls to stand down, the prime minister made reference to extending powers for the security services. Those powers – which include regulation of the internet and forcing internet companies to let spies read everyone’s private communications – were a key part of the Conservative campaign, which failed to score a majority in the House of Commons.

In the speech, given in Downing Street after losing her majority but still looking to form a government, she laid out a series of plans that she hopes to carry out at what she called a “critical time for our country”…

Looking for Wikipedia?

As you may have noticed, the English-speaking Wikipedia is “blacking out” in protest at SOPA/PIPA. This is a very important thing: SOPA/PIPA are potentially extremely dangerous bits of legislation (if you’re looking for a short explanation of why, here’s a great video).

I’m going to assume that you’re aware of the issues and have already taken action appropriate to your place – if you’re in the US, you’ve written to your representatives; if you’re in the rest of the English-speaking world, you’ve donated to the EFF (this issue affects all of us), etc. But if you’re in need of Wikipedia, here’s the simplest way to view it, today:

Accessing Wikipedia during the blackout

  1. Go to the English-language Wikipedia as normal. You’ll see the “SOPA blackout” page after a second or so.
  2. Copy-paste the following code into the address bar of the browser:

javascript:(function()%7Bdocument.getElementById('content').style.display='block';document.getElementById('mw-sopaOverlay').style.display='none'%7D)()

That’s all. You don’t even have to turn off Javascript in your browser, as others are suggesting: just surf away.

If you get sick of copy-pasting on every single Wikipedia page you visit… you can drag this link to your bookmarks toolbar (or right click it and select “add to bookmarks”) and then just click it from your bookmarks whenever you want to remove the blackout.

And if you just came here for the shortcut without making yourself aware of the issues, shame on you.

Apples To Alternative Vote

The other Earthlings, Statto, and I this week came up with a fun and topical variant of hit social board game Apples To Apples (which you might well have played with us at some point or another: if not, come over and we’ll show you). We call it AAV, or Apples To Alternative Vote, and it goes a little like this:

How'dya like them apples? An Applies to Apples (British Isles Edition) set and a sense of humour are all you need to play this game.
  1. Each player draws a hand of seven red cards, as usual. A deck of green cards is built to represent the voting populace. We used 9 green cards for 5 players, and I reckon that was too few: try doubling or tripling the number of players to get a green deck size. Round up to ensure you have an odd number.
  2. In turn, each player (or “candidate”) draws a green card from the constructed deck and explains: “Opinion polls show that voters in this constituency desire things which are…”, and then read out the card as normal. Play about with the language! “I represent the interests of voters who demand…”, etc.
  3. As usual, the other candidates play face-down red cards (policies) that will attract those voters, and the judge flips them over and chooses the one which best-reflects the interests of their constituents. The winning candidate wins their vote, and takes the green card as a prize.
  4. Play until one candidate holds the majority of the green cards. If you run out of green cards before this happens, eliminate the player(s) with the fewest votes (green cards): then they act as judge for these green cards among the remaining candidates. Continue eliminating and redistributing in this fashion until one candidate has a majority. This player is the winner.
  5. If this is all somehow too challenging for you, then declare that AV actually is too complicated, like the No-to-AV people say it is, and give up. Also: you should probably buy yourself some simpler board games, thicko.
An explanation of what all those complicated numbers mean for those too stupid to get their head around Alternative Vote.

We have in mind a possible variant in which different voting issue (green cards) represent different numbers of voters (perhaps using the “values” deck from For Sale), and the aim is to have a majority of voters, not issues, won over by your policies. “12,000 voters desire things which are… scary!” Give it a go, and let us know how you get on. And don’t forget to vote on Thursday!

Democracy At Work

Earlier this week, I had a strange experience, but it requires a little bit of back story.

Spend enough time with me, and you’ll hear me gripe about the problems of our democracy: the faults of the plurality voting system, gerrymandering and it’s long-term ripple effects, party politics, the motivations of politicians, and much more, even before I get down to talking about the apathy of constituents and our disgustingly ill-informed populace. I know how little my vote counts for (clue: pretty much nothing), and that’s why to make my opinions heard though occasional, carefully-researched letters to the people who represent me, and I encourage others to do the same – a letter, while in itself not particularly powerful, is still worth a lot more than a ballot paper. And thanks to WriteToThem, it’s really easy to send correspondence to the elected officials who represent you on the local, regional, national and international stages.

Perhaps inspired by some combination of (a) my recent experience with Pecky and the Squawkies, (b)  the mess created by their seagull buddies on and around rubbish collection days – which seems to have gotten worse recently (see photo, above) – and (c) the petitions that seem to be floating about town in general over the last few weeks, requesting that something (humane) is done about the troublesome Aber seagull population, I wrote to the council to express my thoughts on the matter, and to make a few suggestions based on things that have been tried by other towns affected by seagulls.

When I’ve written to representatives before, I’ve gotten a mixed response rate, and that’s fair enough – they’re busy people (at least, they are if they’re doing their job right). Writing to my MP, over the last decade or so, has typically gotten me a response rate of about 80%, which is quite impressive. Writing to MEPs gets a response rate of about 65%. Writing to a PM gets a response rate of about 50%, and that’s better than I’d have expected. So far, writing to my local council, although I’ve not done so often, has gotten me a 100% response rate.

And so I got an e-mail in response to my query about seagulls: great, it’s a pressing issue, apparently, and one that’s attracting a lot of attention from constituents (nice to know I’m not alone in my opinions), and it’s now scheduled for discussion on the next Department of Environmental Services and Housing Scrutiny Committee meeting, which is nice. What I didn’t expect was what followed.

The chap pictured above (thanks, BBC) is Ceredig Davies, Aberystwyth Central Ward councilor for Ceredigion Council. On Monday night, while I was on my way back to The Cottage after ReAnime Night (with a brief diversion to say goodnight to Claire on the way), he pulled up his car alongside me and leapt out, shaking my hand as he went.

He thanked me for my e-mail, explained that he’d e-mailed me and asked if I’d got it, and told me what he’d done about it so far and the challenges were that he thought might make it difficult to implement my suggestions (mostly only things I was aware of, but sadly not things I know the answers to). Then he dashed back across the street, hopped back into his car, and drove away.

This is perhaps the most pro-active response I’ve ever had from an elected official (even without the surprise meeting in the street, his reply to my e-mail was prompt and informative, and was followed-up by more information that interested me), but it left a question burning in my mind: Mr. Davies represents 15,000 or more people in this area, of which I’m just one – how the hell did he know what I looked like, let alone well-enough to spot me in the street. From his car? From behind? At night?

I’m impressed and all that, but it’s still a little spooky. I asked him at the time how he recognised me, and he mumbled something about being the kind of councilor who’s “a bit of an anorak” (what does that mean? does he sit up at night researching his constituents and memorising their appearances and daily movements? does he have a little book with all of our national insurance numbers in and cross them out when he meets us, like a trainspotter but with people?) as he made his way back to his car.

So, the verdict on Mr. Davies: very effective, but also a little bit scary.

Interview Sarah Palin

Remember about four-and-a-bit years ago, I downloaded Dadadodo, which I described at the time as a “word disassociator?” The program itself is a Markov chain generator/randomiser that works on sentence structures: in other words, given some text (speeches, poetry, blog posts, whatever – other kinds have been demonstrated to work on things like music) it will learn the frequencies in which words and punctuation follow other words and punctuation and use that to build resulting sentences.

Imagine the fun you could have if you took the combined speeches of any politician particularly famous for waffling through their answers. Like, say, US presidential election Republican party running mate Sarah Palin

Well, imagine no more – Interview Sarah Palin has you covered. Kick-starting paragraphs (“winding her up”) with particular topics (e.g. “Iraq and Afghanistan,” “John McCain,” etc.) sets off this fabulous little Markov-chain-speechbot. Even if you don’t understand even the theories of the mathematics, you can enjoy this site so long as you’ve got a suitable sense of humour around political waffling.